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The trouble with Carl Borgward was that he didn’t recognise when he had a good thing on the go.
Had he stuck with the concept, he would have been able to cash in on the increasing appetite in his homeland for precisely that sort of vehicle, a gap in the market between the VW Beetle and the cheapest Mercedes-Benz that nobody else was seriously addressing.
The West German motor trade was an orderly and disciplined environment in the ’50s, with each marque knowing its place in the hierarchy – and sticking to it.
All except Herr Borgward. Ever ambitious, he recognised no demarcations as to what he could attach his name to (be it baby cars, limousines, tanks or helicopters) or to the level of in-house innovation he would tackle.
In 1950s Germany, this rotund son of a coal merchant, born at the end of the 19th century, was a household name; a self-promoting celebrity in his own right, famed for his ever-present cigar and Homburg hat.
Privately funded with no board to answer to, he was the maverick showman who had given the country its first all-new post-war car in the shape of the Hansa of 1948.
He appeared capable of anything, so why shouldn’t he expand his reach either side of the 1½-litre market?
Borgward’s biggest problem at the end of the war was that he was in jail, interred by the United States for his dealings with the Nazi regime.
Even there he made good use of his time, living on a diet of American magazines during his enforced two-year holiday.
Flushed with the success of the mid-range Hansa, Borgward wanted to build a truly modern six-cylinder prestige saloon, an arresting sheer-sided design (his first attempt at an integral body) with a bold chopped-off tail.
Just like the American cars that had filled his dreams while in prison, his 2400 would come fully equipped with features such as power windows (using adapted wiper motors), sophisticated heating and ventilation arrangements and – most impressive of all – Europe’s first fully automatic gearbox, the Hansamatic.
This marvel was entirely created by Borgward, with a lock-up torque converter and a proper modulator so that it changed earlier or later depending on where your foot was on the throttle.
Despite having only two speeds (a ‘mountain’ gear and direct drive), it should have been more appropriate and versatile for Europe’s conditions and smaller-engined cars.
Mercedes certainly thought so: the firm had not yet managed to develop its own automatic ’box and was sufficiently impressed that it approached Borgward to work in co-operation on a transmission for Europe.
Despite the fact that the Hansamatic suffered from massive reliability troubles (with prematurely wearing clutch plates) the autocratic Dr Carl snubbed these overtures.
He was already an outsider in the German motor trade, and was notoriously stubborn and tough to get on with. In fact, one gets the impression that he may have been the author of his own demise in many respects.
Certainly his enemies couldn’t wait to see him stumble so they could stab him in the back on the way down.
One of his many spats was with Borg Warner. The Hansamatic got such a bad reputation that the US company took legal measures to force the German to spell his name out in one word across the bonnet of the Isabella (which meant reducing the size of the diamond badge), in case anybody confused it with BORG WARNER.
Borgward persevered with his dreams of a home-grown automatic until the late ’50s (about 70% of 2400s are believed to have had the Hansamatic) but with or without the self-shifter, the Hansa found few friends.
The home market hated the teardrop shape and wanted to remain in the cosy world of late-’30s /early-’40s styling with separate wings and running boards.
There was also a rumour that the car had terrible brakes. With poor linings and a single leading-shoe design on the front drums, these anchors had none of the mechanical self-servo effect that a heavy 90mph-plus model needed.
Undeterred, Borgward supplemented the Hansa 2400 with the longer wheelbase Pullman in 1953, a three-box version with a more conventional roofline and its rear doors hinged on the centre pillar rather than the C-post.
With its servo brakes, the Pullman banished the fastback Hansa 2400 (sometimes called the Sport) after 743 had been built.
In July 1955, the definitive Pullman II was introduced with a slightly smaller 2240cc engine. Superficially similar to the old 2337cc ‘six’ but different in nearly every detail that mattered, at 100bhp it was 20bhp stronger and would live on to power the P100 ‘Big Six’ from 1959.
Borgward claimed 95mph and 28mpg for the 1953-’55 Pullman, with 100mph and 33mpg for the later car (which was produced until May 1958 to the tune of 346 examples).
About 10 are thought to have been brought into the UK by Borgward Concessionaires Metcalf and Mundy of Old Brompton Road. They even ran a demonstrator Pullman, registered MM 2400.
With its chrome side strip and distinctive brake light lenses, ‘our’ Pullman is the later type and one of three right-hookers originally sold in New Zealand.
It belongs to John Wallis, who has restored two Isabellas but always wanted one of these bigger cars. “They seemed to be unobtainable,” he says, “but then I heard about this one. I bought it unseen and four months later it arrived.”
The Borgward had been outside for seven years and the condition was quite poor: “The inside was full of insects and there was an inch of water in it, but it wasn’t rusty like a car from the UK, so I was really pleased with it.”
It was a relatively simple restoration: “The engine was seized but because it’s similar to an Isabella unit I was able to source pistons and other mechanical bits.”
The shell, meanwhile, was sent to a friend: “I knew he could do it relatively quickly while I made a start on the wiring loom, refurbished the rear suspension, and sourced new kingpins.”
The car was resprayed two years ago in its original black, and then it was simply a matter of reassembly. It was finished in April 2014 and is the only one known in the UK.
In the metal, the Pullman’s shape is partly toy-like – a childish idea of what a big saloon should look like – and partly sinister, with the Cold War overtones of something from the other side of the Berlin Wall.
Pretty it isn’t, yet the Borgward has a strange attraction, not least because of compelling details such as a spare wheel that lives in a compartment under the boot floor (accessed via its own hinged door), the neat fuel reserve tap inside the petrol filler flap, and the self-parking wipers that stop precisely in line with each other in a shallow arc.
The curiously shaped ’screen seems to revel in the then-new glass-bending technology, while all the chromed brass trim is numbered to the car, highlighting the fact that each Pullman was built to order.
You can spot bits from other ’50s German cars (the Bosch foglamps are shared with the BMW 501) but the brake-light lenses that curve over the rear wings must surely be unique to the Pullman.
Open the bonnet and at first glance the neatly presented pushrod ‘six’ looks like a twin-cam (the ‘cam boxes’ are just inspection covers).
It’s an efficient design, with hemispherical combustion chambers and an alloy head, cradled in a rubber-supported subframe from which Borgward claimed it could be removed in 45 minutes.
On cars headed for hot climates, the firm gave the famous diamond grille fewer slats to help airflow but Wallis has pre-empted any modern-day overheating with an oil cooler for the transmission plus an electric radiator fan. He has also beefed up the floor beneath the seat runners.
Borgward insisted on suicide front doors for his flagship. They aren’t the easiest things to negotiate but once inside you sit on a large three-seater bench.
Reclining mechanisms were standard and you got carpets where lesser models had rubber mats. The wood was originally lacquered black and the seats vinyl, but Wallis allowed himself a retrim in leather and less funereal veneers.
Owners of Isabella Coupés will recognise the glitz and glamour of the Pullman’s instruments and dash with its half-dozen faux ivory piano-key switches. There’s also the inevitable white steering wheel that seems to be a feature of almost every ’50s German car with pretensions to luxury.
There are heaters for the front and rear, controlled by chunky chromed wheels on the fascia that look like something out of a plumbing catalogue.
The fit and finish is superficially in the Mercedes 300 class but with extra novelties such as the powered rear quarter windows that open and shut on a continuous cam, and the delightful frameless wind-down quarterlights in the front doors. The power windows of the original Hansa 2400, however, were eschewed on the Pullman.
In fact, apart from the choice of gearbox – and the possibility of a Golde sunroof – there were very few options available for this fully equipped car, while the lavish head and legroom in the rear almost tips it into the limousine class.
Carl Borgward employed 20,000 workers and used to visit his factories in a slightly stretched chauffeur-driven Pullman.
Lounging in the back of this one as it hums along Surrey lanes, it is not hard to imagine the captain of industry being well pleased with the ride comfort that he’d achieved – perhaps the car’s most outstanding feature.
What Borgward called his ‘pendulum’ rear suspension is actually a swing axle that levels poor surfaces with supple aplomb – but it does feel slightly odd when asked to do anything else, such as go round a corner.
“The axle is supported by bearings on the side of the differential,” explains Wallis, “but when you’re cornering they lock, so don’t allow the swing axle to operate correctly… It means the handling can feel interesting.”
It’s nothing approaching a problem, though. The basically understeering Pullman just rocks and shuffles uneasily on curves taken with anything close to enthusiasm, so you just tend to ease off.
At comparable speeds, the nifty handling of the lighter and better sorted Isabella (with similar suspension) would allow you to zip through.
Of course with only 100bhp to shift 3300lb, you have to pedal the Borgward quite hard to extract performance.
It makes willing noises and smooth unruffled progress – the figures show it is roughly as quick as a Bristol 401 – but Wallis has reconciled himself to the fact that the car is above all a great long-distance motorway cruiser (enhanced here by a four-speed ZF conversion, giving swift kickdown and higher gearing).
This car, the last Pullman II supplied and built in 1957, was born as a four-speed manual (with the same all-synchromesh ’box as the Isabella), but the automatic transmission is very much in the spirit of the car’s character – as is the unobtrusive electric power steering fitted during the rebuild.
Wallis resisted the temptation to fit disc brakes and, with its servo and twin leading shoes, it has no particular problems in that department.
The moody political and financial story behind Borgward’s 1961 bankruptcy has been discussed before; suffice to say that BMW prospered from Borgward’s demise in a market where the still popular Isabella had done most of the groundwork.
At the same time, Mercedes rid itself of a potential rival who had been irritating it with his big car ambitions for 10 years.
How convenient. But was Carl Borgward really that hard done by? Should the world now be overrun by pushy executives driving behind the Bremen diamond rather than the double kidney of Munich?
Whatever the events of the early ’60s, here was a tycoon who was probably going to crash and burn anyway. A man who trusted his gut feelings rather than making healthy strategic decisions. Someone who didn’t plan or delegate very well, and who perhaps squandered his energies on too many hare-brained ego trips (including helicopters and fuel injection systems on baby cars), as well as working on small profit margins.
With just 1399 Grosse Borgwards built, we can assume that the company didn’t recover its tooling costs on its big cars, but the eponymous Dr Carl was unlikely to have been very concerned. He hardly advertised these six-cylinder models and sold them mostly to friends.
They were a harmless indulgence that delivered prestige value and gave the boss something to drive around in – even if he never made a single Deutschmark out of them.
Images: James Mann
This was originally in our January 2016 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication